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Fake identities, phoney reporting, and the ‘Inside Syria Media Center’

Counterpunch exposes what looks like a fake reporting project

Two weeks ago, on 5th January 2018, Counterpunch published its follow up investigation to the previous investigation it had carried out into the mysterious personality of “Alice Donovan”, a writer whose pieces both Counterpunch and The Duran had published, and who the Washington Post had  exposed following a tip-off from the FBI to be a fictitious personality, with the FBI alleging that she was a Russian intelligence concoction.

Over the course of its previous investigation of “Alice Donovan” Counterpunch did indeed provide strong grounds for doubting that she is a real person.  Counterpunch also discovered that her “writings” depended heavily on plagiarism of other writers’ work.

In the aftermath of Counterpunch’s article we deleted the “Alice Donovan’s” articles which we had published and I wrote an article for The Duran in which I discussed the affair and Counterpunch’s role in exposing it.

Counterpunch’s original investigation of “Alice Donovan” however also raised questions about a writer who The Duran has also published called Sophie (or Sophia) Mangal, as well as the Inside Syria Media Center, which Sophie Mangal has claimed to work for.

Sophie Mangal is the writer whom “Alice Donovan” has most heavily plagiarised, and the seemingly close connection between Sophie Mangal and “Alice Donovan” led Counterpunch to make further enquiries about her.

At this point I should say that The Duran is very familiar with Sophie Mangal.  Over the two years of our existence she has flooded us with literally scores of submissions, the overwhelming majority of which were about the Syrian war.  All of these submissions took a strongly pro-Syrian government position.

Sophie Mangal’s submissions however tended to be very brief and one dimensional, lacking much in the way of analysis and context.  Accordingly, though we are always willing to consider submissions, in Sophie Mangal’s case we only felt able to publish a few of them.

This however did not seem to deter her in the slightest.  We still continued to receive submissions from her at a prodigious rate.

Unlike “Alice Donovan” Sophie Mangal did however appear to have a genuine personality.

I actually corresponded with her on the subject of the draft constitution the Russian government proposed for Syria, which was discussed some months ago at the Astana talks, and of which the Inside Syria Media Center sent us a copy.  The replies I got were definitely written by a real person.  In the article I subsequently wrote about this draft constitution I acknowledged Sophie Mangal’s help and that of the Inside Syria Media Center’s in writing it.

Counterpunch’s latest investigation has however exposed how threadbare the background of Sophie Mangal’s personality actually is.

It turns out that apart from a mountain of articles, a single photograph (see caption) and a few emails there is no independent trace of her.  Attempts to check facts she has provided about her background have led nowhere.

Moreover it has turned out that just as “Alice Donovan” has been plagiarising articles by Sophie Mangal, so Sophie Mangal has been plagiarising articles by other writers.

Moreover Counterpunch’s enquiries about Sophie Mangal raised serious questions about the reality of yet another writer who also seemed to have some connection to the Inside Syria Media Center.  This was Anna Jaunger, some of whose articles The Duran has also published.

It turns out that not only was there not much evidence for the actual existence of Anna Jaunger, but plagiarism appeared to be involved in her work as well, and – even more seriously – there was also clear evidence of identity theft, with the photograph “Anna Jaunger” has provided of herself being the stolen photograph of another woman.

Overall Counterpunch’s investigation exposes what looks like a veritable labyrinth of invisible or non-existent writers hiding behind concocted identities and fabricated life stories, with all of this somehow connected to the Inside Syria Media Center, and with the entire project depending heavily on plagiarism to give its mathematically prodigious output at least some appearance of substance.

Counterpunch’s discoveries raise serious questions which require full answers.

I accordingly took down Sophie Mangal’s and Anna Jaunger’s articles which The Duran had published and immediately emailed both Sophie Mangal and Mariam Al-Hijab, the editor in chief of the Inside Syria Media Center, saying that there were serious questions about their work which urgently required answers, and asking them to contact me to explain themselves.

To my astonishment instead of receiving a reply what I got from Sophie Mangal was two new submissions, both on the topic of the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme and both sent via the same email server – mail.com – which Counterpunch had flagged in its investigation.  The second of these submissions came with a brief introductory email which reads as follows

Dear colleague, this is the special investigative correspondent, Sophie Mangal.
I submit here my new article in English and kindly request that you look into the possibility of publishing it on your website.

The first submission did not come with any message.

Further requests sent to Sophie Mangal since we received these submissions have gone unanswered.  I now believe that Sophie Mangal’s emails attaching her two latest submissions were machine generated, and were triggered automatically by the emails I had sent her.  Presumably following the exposure the device which generated these emails has been turned off.

In other words I now think that there is no longer any actual person at the other end of the email address which we have used in the past to correspond with Sophie Mangal.

If I am wrong about this, then I invite Sophie Mangal and Mariam Al-Hijab to contact me in order to explain themselves and to put me right.  However I now inform them in advance that should they do so I will consider myself duty bound to share whatever explanation and information they give me with other concerned websites, including of course Counterpunch.

Assuming that I don’t hear from Sophie Mangal and Mariam Al-Hijab – as I expect – what conclusions can be drawn from this strange affair?

Firstly, it is clear that some sort of organisation is involved, and that someone has gone to some trouble to set up what increasingly looks like a media centre with dummy reporters to spread stories about the Syrian war.

I say this because based on Counterpunch’s investigation the “Inside Syria Media Center” despite having a live website has something of the appearance of a phantom, much as Sophie Mangal now does.

At this point it is important to say that a distinction must be made between a concocted and completely fictitious identity and a genuine writer who writes under a pseudonym.  “Alice Donovan” and probably “Anna Jaunger” look to be the former not the latter, and one should not confuse the two.

Secondly, though this project has generated a massive amount of raw output in the two or so years of its existence, it has remarkably little to show for the resources which have been put into it.

Some articles have been published on some sites – including unfortunately ours – but they have added precisely nothing to the overall debate, and there is not a scintilla of evidence that they have swayed anyone.  All that they have done is badly duplicate the work of actual writers, some of whom they have plagiarised.

I am not going to venture a guess as to who is behind this project, save to say (1) that if it is an intelligence agency then its crudeness argues strongly against it being the intelligence agency of any of the major powers; and (2) all the indications are this project has its origins in the Middle East.

As to the FBI’s theory that Russian intelligence is behind “Alice Donovan”, not only have I seen no evidence for this, but the sheer crudeness of this project to my mind all but rules that idea out.

Putting aside that there is no obvious motive for Russian intelligence to set up a project of this kind, its botched implementation makes it inconceivable to me that the Russians could have been involved in it.

I appreciate when I say this that I may be attributing to Russian intelligence more sophistication and intelligence than it actually has.

However everything that I have heard about Russian intelligence suggests that it is very sophisticated and intelligent indeed, which makes it impossible for me to believe that it could have been involved in a crude and amateurish project like this.

That is all that I feel that it is possible to say about this strange affair.  Moreover despite Counterpunch’s painstaking and thorough efforts I doubt that we will now ever learn the full truth.  Whoever is behind this project now knows they have been exposed and will take whatever precautions they can in order to conceal themselves.

In the meantime Counterpunch deserves everyone’s thanks for exposing this troubling and frankly ugly sham.

In the present heated atmosphere distinguishing fact from fiction in today’s news is becoming difficult enough.  If this affair shows anything it is that we now also need to be on our guard about some of the purported messengers of that news.

Cynics will no doubt rightly say that it was ever thus.  Still it is good to be reminded of it from time to time, and we at The Duran certainly will try to learn this lesson.  In the meantime we can only apologise to our readers for letting ourselves be gulled in the way that we were.

We also express our thanks to Counterpunch for putting us right, and for all the hard work they have done in exposing this ugly sham.

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